Colleges for Students With Learning Disabilities And ADHD

Starting on the college admissions journey can be daunting for any parent, regardless of their child’s academic prowess. From college visits to navigating financial aid forms, the process is filled with challenges that can induce stress and anxiety. For parents of teens with learning disabilities or ADD/ADHD, the journey comes with an additional layer of complexity and apprehension. Having been their child’s strongest advocate throughout their K-12 education, these parents now face the daunting task of navigating a new system without the familiar support structures provided by IEP teachers and guidance counselors.

In this article, we will delve into the challenges faced by college students with disabilities, drawing on decades of academic research to illuminate the harsh realities. However, we won’t stop there. We will also provide practical advice on how to overcome these obstacles, empowering students with learning disabilities or ADHD to navigate the college experience successfully. By following our guidance, parents can help set their children up for academic achievement and personal growth in the collegiate environment.

Here’s what the research reveals about students with learning disabilities and ADHD

  1. Students with a learning disability are only half as likely as their non-LD peers to enroll in a four-year university.
  2. Those with ADHD or a learning disability typically take longer to earn a degree and have a significantly higher drop-out rate compared to non-LD students.
  3. Surprisingly, only a quarter of LD students disclose their disability upon entering post-secondary education, often because they don’t believe the label accurately represents them.
  4. Studies also indicate that LD students have limited knowledge of available accommodations in college classrooms.
  5. However, accepting accommodations has been consistently linked to improved college grades and graduation rates.

If these findings have sparked concern, that’s understandable. But it’s the last point that can turn that concern into proactive steps. Helping your teen navigate the college admissions process and thrive on campus requires early preparation. Below, we offer four tips to set your special needs teen on the path to post-secondary success.

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Securing Accommodations for the SAT/ACT Exams

Let’s start with a practical step that needs to be addressed long before college selection: securing accommodations for the SAT/ACT exams. Both tests offer accommodations for students with special needs, including extended time (50%, 100%, or 150%), computer use for essays, extra breaks, or the use of a four-function calculator.

To apply for accommodations, students must go through their high school’s guidance department, which is responsible for providing documentation demonstrating the need for the desired accommodation(s). The counselor will fill out a form detailing the child’s educational history: When was the original diagnosis? How long has the accommodation been provided through their IEP or 504 plan? Has there been a recent reevaluation by a school psychologist to confirm the continued need for the accommodation?

Thankfully, the College Board has simplified its approval process in recent years, placing greater trust in the recommendations made by the school-based team. According to the College Board, “Most students with a formal school-based plan that meets College Board criteria will also have their accommodations approved under the new policy.”

If your teen receives accommodations in their high school classroom while taking assessments, it’s highly recommended to pursue comparable accommodations for the SAT/ACT. Studies have shown that extended time can lead to improved test scores for average-to-high ability students with disabilities, although students with lower cognitive functioning may not experience the same boost.

Shift your mindset

Transitioning from the K-12 educational system to the post-secondary landscape requires a significant shift in mindset, especially for students with disabilities. Throughout their K-12 journey, these students receive support through either an Individualized Education Program (IEP) or a 504 Service Agreement, both mandated by the federal law known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

However, once students enter college, the landscape changes. IDEA no longer applies, and colleges are only required to adhere to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which also governs 504 Service Agreements. Unlike IDEA, the ADA doesn’t carry the same level of enforcement in the educational realm.

In the K-12 system, IDEA ensures that students receive a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE), and denials of this can lead to legal action. However, in college, students must learn to advocate for themselves. They must effectively communicate their needs to professors and disability services staff, navigating a system that is often less accommodating and more challenging than what they experienced in high school. Learning to self-advocate becomes crucial in this new environment.

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Developing Your Teen’s Self-Advocacy Abilities

Empowering your teen with disabilities to advocate for themselves is essential for their success in college. They need to understand the nature of their disability and articulate how it affects their learning process. Unlike in public high schools where teachers accommodate students, in college, the responsibility shifts entirely to the student.

Securing accommodations is an ongoing process in college. Most institutions require students to request accommodations before each semester begins. This process isn’t always straightforward. For instance, at Bates College, students with accommodations are urged to meet with each professor individually at the start of every semester. During these meetings, students must clearly and convincingly explain their needs. According to Bates, self-advocacy can foster better understanding between students and professors, leading to stronger academic relationships.

If you can’t envision your teen engaging in such discussions with professors, there’s still work to be done in developing their self-advocacy skills.

Explore Accommodations Offered by Colleges

In the college search process for students with significant learning disabilities or attentional needs, disability support services should be a top priority. However, not all colleges and universities offer the same level of support. Some may have minimal resources and may not adequately meet your child’s needs, while others have highly structured programs specifically designed for students with disabilities.

These specialized programs are often led by staff certified in working with students with learning disabilities. They offer tailored guidance and support that takes into account each student’s unique learning style and needs. Services commonly provided include note-taking assistance, modified coursework, tutoring, mandatory academic counseling, and more. It’s important to note that these extra services typically come with an additional fee.

Accommodations are usually granted on a case-by-case basis and are largely determined by the Office of Disability Services. To strengthen your case, ensure that your disability documentation is up-to-date and comprehensive. It should include a specific diagnosis and clear recommendations for accommodations. It’s advisable for your teen to reach out to the Office of Disability Services at each prospective college to confirm that their needs can be accommodated.


Ensuring that your child’s college experience is supportive and accommodating begins with thorough research into the disability support services offered by prospective colleges and universities. By exploring these accommodations and understanding the level of support available, you can help your child make an informed decision about where to pursue their higher education. Remember to advocate for your child’s needs, provide up-to-date documentation, and encourage them to reach out to disability services offices at their potential schools. With careful planning and proactive communication, you can help set your child up for success in college despite their learning disabilities or attentional needs.